In Xi’an, China, dinner hour during Jason Wang’s childhood was marked by an unmistakable aroma— the pungent, vinegary spice of a julienned potato salad. “It’s like a dinner bell to me. I smell it and I know dinner is coming so I better stop playing with my Transformers,” says Wang, author of “Xi’an Famous Foods.”
Variations on this salad—typically served room temperature—are common across northern China, where potatoes, wheat noodles and yeasted breads are more likely to be served than in the southern and coastal rice-producing areas. The potatoes always are cut into matchsticks—for maximum surface area for seasonings to adhere—and cooked only briefly before being shocked in cold water to preserve a tender-crisp texture.
But it’s the salad’s sour-spicy flavor profile that makes this recipe typical of Xi’an. The cooked potatoes are dressed simply with a mixture of white vinegar, sesame oil and a bit of sugar. After that, a searing-hot, yet mildly spiced chili oil infused with mouth-tingling Sichuan peppercorns is poured over chopped scallion whites piled on top of the potatoes. Blooming the aromatics in the oil helps disperse their flavor throughout the dish, and a sprinkle of cilantro further freshens it.
“It’s a pretty light dish that’s supposed to be appetizing to wake up the taste buds,” says Wang, whose cookbook is named after his father’s New York-based eatery, which Wang has helped expand to more than 10 locations. “So then they’re ready for full-on dinner.”
Wang’s book is as much a memoir as a collection of recipes. The family left China for the United States when he was 8, but the memory of the salad stuck with him, landing the recipe in the “throwback” section of the book.
A mandoline makes the salad prep easy, and we start the potatoes in salted cold water; dropping the matchsticks in boiling water left the potatoes too starchy and mushy. We also add chili flakes to the hot oil for extra color.
The resulting light, tangy side dish conjures the familiar vinegary potato salads of American picnics, but likely would be as much at home on Wang’s childhood table.